I haven't weighed in on the US intervention in Libya so far because, although I'm against it, I didn't really feel strongly enough about it to chime in one way or another. My opposition comes mainly from the unclear goal of the mission (is it "narrowly focused on saving lives" as Obama said tonight or to overthrow Qaddafi?), a lack of trust in US intentions and the general belief that the unintended consequences of foreign military intervention seem ill equiped to successfully impact a civil war in a predictable way.
Watching Obama's speech on Libya tonight has moved me to share some thoughts. Unlike Phil, I found the speech to be infuriating. Tonight's speech was a case study in the exultation of American exceptionalism in complete disregard of the history and current policies of the United States, and it helped reveal the base hypocrisy of US foreign policy in the Middle East.
The main theme tonight was a time-tested one: America is too special and moral a country to not have intervened on behalf of the Libyan people. Obama repeatedly praised the "shining city upon a hill" throughout his speech:
For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom.
and more dramatically:
To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.
And towards the end Obama soothed, "because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States."
I haven't wanted to attack the Libya intervention in the grounds that it is completely hypocritical, because honestly I understand that any government's policies are politically and economically driven and thus bound to be hypocritical, but tonight's celebration of American moral leadership pushed me over the edge. One might support the American attack on Libya, and I can understand the reasons you would, but please don't believe for a second that it had anything to do with "US values" or that the US is operating on "behalf of what's right." I also think it's an enormous stretch to claim, as Phil did, that the US is building an "international coalition around the principle of human rights in the Middle East." (to counter one only has to look at Bahrain, Yemen, Ivory Coast, etc.) I think the most favorable reading of the situation is the the US intervened on behalf of close allies in Europe who were frightened of a massive refugee crisis if Qaddafi began completely massacring his opponents. Rather than fighting in defense of human rights, it seems the US is yet again building an international coaltion to punish its enemies while ignoring the transgressions of its allies.
And of course there's Israel. Read this passage from tonight's speech and see if you can see the one small change I made:
Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. The water for hundreds of thousands of people in [Gaza City] was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assault from the air.
The only part that I'm not sure is accurate is whether journalists were sexually assaulted in Gaza.
The bald faced hypocrisy of Obama's glorious speechifying, while continuing to provide complete diplomatic cover for Israel, is criminal. I see no reason to believe, as Phil wrote, that "Obama is conscious of [his speech's] Palestinian application." Actually, he might be conscious of it, but doesn't mean he will do a damn thing about it. When it comes to its allies, the US government is most interested in maintaining the status quo until it becomes untenable. This was the "hinge" that we saw in Egypt from the administrationt's perspective. It didn't involve the US embracing international law or the grievances of the Egyptian people, but instead it was the US understanding that Mubarak was out and that it had get aligned with the new power players in Egypt. When it comes to Israel/Palestine, the US is still all chips in (to the tune of $3 billion a year) on the side of Israel, and it doesn't seem that Obama's newfound appreciation for human rights will alter that ledger anytime soon (and that's why it's up to civil society to make the status quo untenable, but that's a different post).
Ironically, Obama offered the following warning tonight against inaction in the case of Libya, "The writ of the UN Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security." Strong stuff. It echoes very closely one of the warnings offered by the authors of the Goldstone Report on the danger of ignoring the need for accountability for the fighting during Operation Cast Lead, "To deny modes of accountability reinforces impunity, and tarnishes the credibility of the United Nation and of the international community.” So far, the Obama administration has done much more to tarnish the credibility of the international community than it has to uphold global peace and security. Tonight's speech may have tried to blur that reality, but the record speaks for itself.